By Sarah Bender ‘16
Describe your current role at the Alan Koppel Gallery.
I currently work as a Gallery Assistant at the Alan Koppel Gallery, and was given the role of Curator for our latest show, MILLENNIAL’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, which runs from February 19th – April 15th, 2016.
When did you first start working at the Alan Koppel Gallery? How did you come into this role?
I first began interning with Alan Koppel Gallery in 2014, the summer before my senior year at Duke. I was participating in the Duke in Chicago program, which required that students find a job or internship in the arts industry to supplement the classes we were taking. Visiting a friend in Chicago a few months before the program, I happened to wander into the Alan Koppel Gallery and fell in love with the atmosphere and the artwork. Alan collects an eclectic array of 20th Century American and European masters, and you can tell from the moment that you talk to him, as well as Gallery Director Laura Ellsworth, that they are passionate about their work. The gallery is held in a turn of the century townhouse, and shares a space with an interior design business. It is a truly beautiful place to work in, and I had a sense of that from the very first time I visited.
How did Duke in Chicago influence your postgraduate plans?
I participated in the very first Duke in Chicago program, the summer of 2014. It was an exciting, busy six weeks of getting to know the city, my classmates, and the art industry. An important goal of Duke in Chicago — and something I think they did very well — is to show students that are considering a career in the arts that it can be a feasible, fulfilling path. Duke is filled with bright, competitive students, and so often you hear of people with great artistic talent settling for more “secure” jobs that they are less passionate about, or even completely unhappy with. Duke in Chicago connected me and my classmates with alumni and other adults who were able to recount, first hand, the struggles and successes that can come from pursuing a career in the creative industries. It wasn’t until Duke in Chicago that I committed to following my passion for art post-graduation, and it was completely due to the connections I made during the program that I was able to shift my position at the Alan Koppel Gallery from intern to full time employee.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
A typical workday leading up to the opening involved researching my theme, writing wall text, and visualizing the layout of the exhibition. On a particularly exciting day I was able to make a studio visit to local artist Dianna Frid, to discuss including some of her artwork in the show. The gallery director, Laura, and I spoke with her about her process and style, selecting which pieces would add an interesting dimension to the inventory we were already working with for MILLENNIAL’S GUIDE. We ended up including three of Frid’s artworks, each relating to Outer Space but completely unique in material and subject matter.
My favorite part of my job is when I get to work firsthand with artists, because there are so many talented people out there with new, fascinating ideas and perspectives. Curating a show allows me to bring at least a few of these ideas into one space, and sort of guide the conversation. Curators can choose to design an exhibition with a very heavy hand, or sit back and let the audience do more of the work. In MILLENNIAL’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, I wanted to present enough information that a collection of over 40 artworks and objects dating anywhere from 1899 to 2015 would make sense in the same room, which is how the idea of a space exploration timeline formed. At the same time, I felt that the theme called for a playful, approachable style, because dreams and fears about the idea of the unknown, of Space, is something very human– something that doesn’t need to be overly explained.
Can you tell us a little more about your new show, “MILLENNIAL’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY”?
MILLENNIAL’S GUIDE TO THE GALAX is a space-themed group exhibition. The eclectic body of works included in the exhibition aims to form a timeline through our ever-evolving perceptions of outer space, as explored by a variety of mediums. The show also juxtaposes generational and cultural notions of the cosmos, which is reflected by the artists featured in the collection.
There is a vast difference between what my parents’ and grandparents’ generations thought of the universe, growing up in a time when space exploration was a dream of the future. As a millennial, man’s first step on the moon was a page in my history books between the Civil Rights Movement and Watergate. Technology has advanced and international relations have shifted in a way that’s created an entirely new perspective on the “new frontier”– the show is designed to be both playful and provocative, while grounding the artworks in their historical contexts.
As curator, what are your responsibilities for the show?
As curator I was responsible for conceiving the show, which meant researching the gallery’s inventory to see what sort of theme or title might entice audiences to visit the gallery and purchase art. Alan has a vast collection of space paraphernalia and collectible robots from the 1950-60s, as well as some contemporary works that evoke space-related ideas. To me, these pieces all came together to form a chronology of the way artists have engaged with the concept of the Universe we live in, and it’s formidable, alluring unknowns.
After Alan approved my pitch for MILLENNIAL’S GUIDE, I was responsible for supplementing the collection with some newer artworks– because, as the title suggests, I wanted there to be a distinctly millennial element to the exhibition. I was able to commission Melinda Marquardt, an emerging artist out of London, to undertake a study on the iconography of the astronaut in her incredibly detailed pen drawing, HERO. Sylvie Spewak and Alex Lark, both recent Duke graduates, contributed photographs that helped me to shape a more diverse picture of how younger generations perceive the idea of Space.
Spewak captures a nostalgic, urban vision of being tethered to Earth, while Lark’s BACKYARD METEOR evokes the freeing beauty of the cosmos framed above the Australian outback. While I was most excited about this academic, visionary side of curating, there were also, of course, the practical matters of drafting Consignment Agreements with the new artists, shipping and handling the artwork, planning and installation, and marketing the show. It took everyone in the gallery’s efforts to bring this idea to fruition, and I’m so grateful that I have such wonderful, experienced co-workers who were able to make this show happen.
Did you take any classes at Duke that have contributed in some way to your work at the Alan Koppel Gallery?
Absolutely. Although my focus was always in Art History, I chose to be a Visual Media Studies Major at Duke– and I am so happy with that choice. While I’ll admit that it’s a less recognizable major to have on your resume, the variety of subjects I was able to explore within the context of VMS gave me a much more diverse approach to the creative industry. Probably the most topical class I took at Duke in terms of the gallery’s current collection was 20th Century European Art with Professor Mark Antliff, who was also my thesis advisor. Having a deep understanding of art history is absolutely integral both to curating and to selling artwork, and Professor Antliff is an extremely knowledgeable resource.
I also took a class through the Nasher Museum in which I worked as curatorial intern, and I was able to shadow and learn from Marshall Price and Trevor Schoonmaker, which was invaluable. The most influential classes of all, however, were Intro to Visual Culture and Curating Global Art, which I took with Professor Kristine Stiles. Without her encouragement in my potential and lessons on the theories behind curation, I never would have been confident enough to pursue a curation opportunity straight out of college.
What is your advice for a Duke undergraduate who are interested in a similar career?
My advice for anyone interested in a similar career would be to try and make yourself indispensable. It’s a given that you should be passionate about your work, about art, art markets and history– but being useful is what will make you the most valuable employee. Even after my internship was over, I travelled to Chicago once to work at the gallery’s booth at Art Expo, and I continued doing social media and website work for the gallery remotely throughout the year. I truly believe that if I hadn’t been so persistent, I never would have been presented with the larger opportunity to curate my first exhibition.
Check out photos of the exhibit below: